In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to visit eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, the last slaver known to have made the transatlantic journey. Illegally brought to the United States, Lewis was enslaved fifty years after the transoceanic slave trade was outlawed. At the time, Cudjo Lewis was the only known person alive who could recount this integral part of the nation’s history. As a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer, Hurston was eager to hear about these experiences firsthand. But the reticent elder didn’t always speak when she came to visit. Sometimes he would tend his garden, repair his fence, or be lost in reveries of his homeland.
Hurston persisted, though, and during an intense period of about three months, she and Cudjo Lewis communed over her gifts of peaches and watermelon, and gradually Lewis, a poetic storyteller, began to share heartrending memories of his childhood in Africa; the attack by, Amazons, the female warriors who slaughtered his townspeople; the horrors of being captured and held in the barracoons of Ouidah for selection by American traders; the harrowing ordeal of the Middle Passage aboard the Clotilda, as “cargo,” along with more than one hundred other souls; the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War; and finally his role in the founding of Africatown.
Barracoon reflects Hurston’s skills as both a social scientist and a writer, and brings to life Cudjo Lewis’s singular voice, in his vernacular, in a poignant, powerful tribute to the disremembered and the unaccounted for others of the Middle Passage. This profound work is an invaluable contribution to our history and culture.